Parasite by Mira Grant
It is no secret that zombies terrify me and I’m the kind of weenie who can barely stomach horror films. (It’s something about the tone, not the gore.) I mean, I’m really glad I watched Cabin in the Woods, because it’s a very useful text for me critically, but I also stayed up until 2 AM in the morning, serene in the knowledge that Pumpkinhead would inevitably jump out of the shadows and set my bed on fire. But, despite (or perhaps because of) my aversion, I find myself, once a year, embarking on an oblique horror binge by reading the Wikipedia entries for horror films and spooking myself silly. This year’s entry was the X-Files episode “Home.” After reading this review of it on Tor.com, I found myself reading every summary of it I could find and even chanced a glimpse at some screencaps until I was starting getting reluctant to turn off the lights.
So, despite being a horror weenie, I’m a bit more acquainted with the stuff than a similarly spookable Jane who wisely avoids the stuff altogether. At the very least, my specific horror of zombies has led me to ponder the implications of the two major subspecies: the truly undead, shuffling zombie and the quick, infected zombie. Among true horror aficionados, there’s contention over which is superior to the other. In his memoir Nerd Do Well, Simon Pegg finds that fast zombies “forgo the winning subtleties of the genre in favour of less cerebral scares” (234). But when the purveyor of the fast zombie resists or gracefully integrates the temptation towards jump scares, I think the virally transmitted zombie apocalypse has the potential for a different shade of body horror. The slow zombie is about the inevitability of death, thus its timelessness; the infected zombie is about what little control we have over our own bodies, thus its timeliness.
That’s exactly what ground Mira Grant (the horror pseudonym of urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire) is mining with Parasite, the first installment of the Parasitology trilogy. But she takes one step farther—the infection was voluntary. In the world of Parasite, the SymboGen Corporation has genetically engineered a tapeworm capable of protecting you from infection and otherwise provide all your healthcare needs. It’s a wildly successful product, with most of the human population relying on them. Unfortunately, nobody’s asked the tapeworms how they feel about this situation…
This twist gives Parasite a different vantage point; it barely feels like a riff on the modern zombie until halfway through, when the sufferers of the mysterious “sleeping sickness” begin getting violent. And even then, Grant is careful to ask whether or not the increasingly sentient tapeworms deserve life. It helps that her protagonist, Sal Mitchell, is inclined to be sympathetic towards them. After all, she was rescued by her tapeworm after a severe car accident that left her with such severe amnesia that she had to relearn everything about functioning as a human being. It’s pretty clear from page one what Sal is, if you’ve read the summary, so I was certain that Grant was willfully playing with our expectations as character after character assured her that she wasn’t, well, that. How it actually pans out isn’t as exciting as I’d hoped, but Sal does ultimately end up occupying a unique space in the world of Parasite.
At first, I was worried that Parasite was going to turn into a novel more enamored of its worldbuilding than its characters, especially since this was my first exposure to Grant’s horror writing. The happily diverse characters are sketched a little too quickly for my taste, but Sal, with her struggles for her own agency against her parents (who hold a legal conservatorship over her), SymboGen (who is funding all her medical bills in exchange for examining her thoroughly) and the original Sally Mitchell (a tempestuous party girl), quickly grows on you. But the sketchiness of the characterization (which is solid, but compressed) does mean that I only related to the other characters through Sal herself. It’s an interesting tactic, and not one I’ve seen before. Ultimately, Parasite is more concerned with its worldbuilding and plot over its characters (save Sal), but not to the detriment of the characters.
Where Parasite shines is its pacing. Though it took me a few chapters to find my feet, I eventually just couldn’t put it down. I prefer to check my RSS feeds when I eat at work to keep things down to a dull roar, but even the 100+ button on my Feedly app couldn’t tear me away. Answers and questions are doled out in perfect proportion—this is how Sal’s otherwise telegraphed status remains interesting and engaging. It’s practically cinematic, which is also why the climax fizzles. In a film, the climactic escape from SymboGen could be embellished almost infinitely; after all, the famous Bridge of Khazad-dûm sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring had one line of direction in the screenplay. But on the page, it doesn’t feel satisfying enough. I didn’t get enough of a victory with a silver lining of darkness to fulfill me and keep me hooked. Given the novel’s otherwise strong showing, it feels a little underwhelming to suddenly find yourself done with the book.
Bottom line: Parasite is full of diverse characters, devastatingly brilliant pacing, and the occasional question about who has the right to what body. The characterization can be compressed, however, and the climax is all hook and no victory. If you’d like!
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.